Henry Jessey: Puritan Chaplain, Independent and Baptist Pastor, Millenarian Politician and Prophet

Written by Jason G. Duesing Reviewed By Steve Weaver

Sorting out Particular Baptist origins has been compared to “trying to untangle a snarled fishing line in the dark” (Wm. Loyd Allen, “Baptist Baptism and the Turn toward Believer’s Baptism by Immersion: 1642,” in Turning Points in Baptist History: A Festschrift in Honor of Harry Leon McBeth, ed. Michael E. Williams Sr. and Walter B. Shurden [Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008], 37). Jason G. Duesing, however, has shone a bright spotlight upon this notoriously confusing subject with a study of early Baptist leader, Henry Jessey (1601–1663). Although Duesing’s comprehensive study of Jessey’s life does much more than this, the careful untangling of the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Particular Baptist community may well be its most lasting contribution to the growing body of scholarship focused on dissenting life in early Modern Britain. Thus, the publication of this work is a welcome addition to Baptist studies.

This project began as the author’s PhD dissertation and was lightly revised for publication. As such, the work follows a fairly straightforward structure. Duesing uses the first chapter to introduce Jessey and his significance as one of the first three pastors of the “Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey” or JLJ church. This church has been called the “mother church” of the Particular Baptist movement, with as many as four of the original seven such churches in London having direct ties to this church. During the late 1630s and early 1640s, several congregations broke away from this church and eventually adopted believer’s baptism. Duesing not only explores Jessey’s importance but also provides a thorough review of the literature published over the last 350 years that directly references Jessey. At the end of the chapter, the question of whether one can classify Jessey as a Baptist is introduced. This question is discussed more fully in chapter four.

The second chapter is a virtual encyclopedia of the key people, events, and published works that would have impacted Jessey’s life. No discernable narrative ties together the disparate selections in this chapter, but the goal is obviously to position Jessey as a man who was shaped by his historical context. To this end, the chapter is useful as a topical reference to key individuals, events, and publications referenced elsewhere in the book.

The subtitle of the work provides a preview of the structure of Chapters three to five. Chapter three explores the period of Jessey’s life from his birth in 1601 until 1637. This period is summarized in the title as Jessey as a “Puritan Chaplain.” Of course, the chapter begins by introducing Jessey’s family background, early life, and conversion. His education at Cambridge University established him as a Puritan seeking reform in the Church of England. Jessey’s first foray into the ministry was as a family chaplain in which he instructed the children of wealthy, landowners according to Puritan orthodoxy. By the end of this period, Jessey had become connected with a separatist congregational church—the church of which he would soon become the third pastor.

The years 1637–1650 were formative in Jessey’s move toward his Baptist convictions. In the fourth chapter, Duesing explores this important period in precise detail and with pristine clarity. After succeeding Henry Jacob and John Lathrop as the third pastor of what would become a virtual factory for Particular Baptist congregations. When Jessey came as pastor, the church was already actively embroiled in conversations about the nature of a gospel church and whether the baptism of the Church of England was valid. The question revolved around whether the Anglican Church’s communion could be regarded as true churches. If not, their baptism was invalid. Some within the JLJ church came to believe their baptism in the national church was invalid. These separated further by forming a separate congregation with a new baptism, although not at this time embracing believer’s baptism. Others became convinced, not only of the invalidity of the Church of England’s baptism, but also that believer’s baptism was commanded, although not at this time embracing immersion as the only proper mode. Still, others would become convinced that only the immersion of believers in a properly ordered gospel church was valid. These believers formed the first Particular Baptist churches in the early 1640s. Jessey’s own experience followed this trajectory. He had first been a Puritan seeking reform within the Church of England, and then later became a separatist pastor. Eventually, through the conversations with those within and outside his own church, Jessey would become personally convinced of believer’s baptism by immersion. Unlike most others who embraced this viewpoint, however, Jessey did not believe that this belief should cause a separation between those who were sprinkled as infants and those immersed as believers. The JLJ church, therefore, became a mixed-congregation with members of both persuasions who were in full fellowship and communion with one another. This naturally resulted in the congregation practicing a mixed-communion at the Lord’s Table. This would be a minority view among the Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century, but Jessey and John Bunyan were among the notable exceptions to the typical restricted communion of their Baptist contemporaries.

The fifth and final chapter explores Jessey as a “Millenarian Political and Prophet” and covers the years 1650 to the end of his life in 1663. This period was characterized by Jessey’s involvement in the tumultuous political life of England during the interregnum and restoration of the monarchy. Jessey’s writings from this period are characterized by optimism for the conversion of Jews, including open advocacy for their welfare and settlement in England. Duesing also demonstrates that Jessey held to a form of pre-millennialism, although Duesing is careful to note the difficulty of applying such labels anachronistically.

Duesing’s study of Jessey fills a significant lacuna in early Baptist studies. This is the most comprehensive study of a figure whose life in many ways epitomized the journey of many in the period from Puritan to Separatist to Baptist. Duesing is masterful in his careful handling of the intricacies of the first congregations to embrace the immersion of believers. The relevant primary and secondary literature is surveyed and evaluated in such a way that readers are allowed to reach their own conclusion based on the evidence, even though the author is not afraid to suggest the most likely scenarios. Duesing’s handling of the difficult question of English Particular Baptist origins is the greatest strength of this work and is an important contribution to seventeenth-century English Baptist studies. One criticism of the book, however, might be the absence of a narrative structure to the first and second chapters, especially the second. While both chapters are important for setting the historical context and significance of Jessey, they probably make the work less accessible to the average reader. Nevertheless, this book is recommended to scholars and interested students of Baptist thought and seventeenth-century England who desire a straightforward presentation of the primary source materials by a trustworthy guide. Most readers will likely benefit by skipping chapter two and using it as a reference guide during the reading of chapters three to five. Those who take the time to read this book will be rewarded with a rich study of an important, though little-known, early Puritan/Separatist/Baptist.

Steve Weaver

Steve Weaver
The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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